Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew Mark Luke and John

Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew Mark Luke and John

by Mark D. Roberts


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Explores the claims of critical biblical scholarship and reveals the confidence in Jesus that is ours through the historical reliability of the four Gospels.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781581348668
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 06/08/2007
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Mark D. Roberts (PhD, Harvard University) is a pastor, author, retreat leader, speaker, and blogger. He is the senior director and scholar in residence for Laity Lodge, a multifaceted ministry in the Hill Country of Texas. He was previously the senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California. Mark also serves on the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine, where he publishes articles and reviews, including his regular column Lyrical Poetry. Mark and his wife, Linda, have two children.

Read an Excerpt


A Bio and a Blook

In this book I seek to answer a simple question: Can we trust the Gospels?

I'm thinking of two different but related dimensions of trust. On the one hand, I'm asking if the Gospels provide reliablehistorical information about Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, I'm wondering if they offer a trustworthy basis for faith in Jesus. In this book I will focus almost exclusively on the historical dimension of trusting the Gospels.

When I speak of "the Gospels," I'm referring to the first four books of the Christian New Testament. There are other so-called "Gospels" among extrabiblical collections of ancient writings, most famously in the Nag Hammadi Library of Gnostic writings. Though these documents rarely focus on the life and ministry of the human Jesus, they may occasionally contain tidbits of historical data about him. I'll refer to the noncanonical Gospels when appropriate in this book, but they are not my primary concern.

I should come clean at this point and admit that I do indeed believe that the Gospels are trustworthy. But I have not always been so confident about their reliability. There was a time when I would have answered the "Can we trust the Gospels?" question with, "Well, maybe, at least somewhat. But I have my doubts." How I got to a place of confidence from this earlier point of uncertainty is a story that will help you grasp "where I'm coming from," as we would say in California.

Doubting the Gospels

I grew up in a solid evangelical church. The Gospels were assumed to be not only historically accurate but also inspired by God. In my teenage years I wondered about the trustworthiness of the Gospels. But my youth leaders reassured me. I was encouraged to learn that the inspiration of the Gospels was proved by the similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Who else, besides the Holy Spirit, could inspire the evangelists to compose such amazingly parallel accounts of Jesus?

I went to college at Harvard. Though founded as a Christian school, and though the university seal continues to proclaim veritas christo et ecclesiae, "Truth for Christ and the Church," Harvard in the 1970s wasn't exactly a bastion of Christian faith. Plus, I was planning to major in philosophy, a discipline notorious for its atheistic bias. Many of my friends back home worried that I would lose my faith at "godless Harvard."

During my freshman year, it wasn't my philosophy courses that threw my faith for a loop, however. It was a New Testament class. Religion 140, "Introduction to Early Christian Literature," was taught by Professor George MacRae, a top-notch New Testament scholar. As the semester began, I had my guard up, expecting Professor MacRae to be a Dr. Frankenstein who would create a monster to devour my faith. In fact, however, Professor MacRae was no mad scientist. One of the best lecturers I ever had at Harvard, he seasoned his reasonable pre sentations with humorous quips among hundreds of valuable insights. His first lecture on the challenges of studying early Christianity was so impressive to me that I still remember his main points and use them when I teach seminary courses on the New Testament.

Professor MacRae followed this lecture with a fascinating exploration of the world of early Christianity. Next he turned to the letters of Paul. Though he investigated them as a critical scholar, his insights fit more or less with what I had learned in church. My guard began to come down.

But then we came to the Gospels. Professor MacRae did not deny their usefulness as historical sources. But he did argue that these documents, though containing some historical remembrances, were chock-full of legendary elements, including miracle stories, exorcisms, and prophecies. These were not to be taken as part of the historical record, he said. Rather, they were best understood as fictional elements added by the early Christians to increase the attractiveness of Jesus in the Greco-Roman world. The Gospels were not so much historical or biographical documents as they were theological tractates weaving together powerful fictions with a few factual data.

Perhaps what most shook my faith in the trustworthiness of the Gospels was Professor MacRae's treatment of the similarities among Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He explained persuasively that Mark was the first of the Gospels to be written, and that Matthew and Luke used Mark in their writing. In the process, he also demonstrated how Matthew and Luke changed Mark, interjecting "contradictions" into the Gospel record.

Listening to this explanation of why the Synoptic Gospels were so similar, I felt the rug being pulled out from under my confidence in these writings. Where I had once been taught that these similarities were evidence of divine inspiration, I discovered that a straightforward historical explanation provided a simpler account of the data. How many other things have I been taught about the Gospels that aren't true? I wondered.

Uncertain about My Uncertainty

After finishing Religion 140, I could not trust the Gospels to provide historically accurate knowledge of Jesus. Yet, as much as I found this skeptical perspective compelling, it didn't fully satisfy me. Ironically, my studies of philosophy contributed to my uncertainty about my Gospel uncertainty. As a "phil concentrator" I was learning to scrutinize the theoretical underpinnings of all beliefs. It seemed only right to subject what I had learned about the New Testament to this sort of investigation. When I did, I began to wonder if my new perspective on the Gospels was too simplistic.

For example, one of the things that bothered me about Professor MacRae's position was how quickly he concluded that there were contradictions among the Gospels. In my philosophy classes I was being trained to assume that a document was consistent unless every effort to discern consistency failed. Though the Gospels were not written by one author, it seemed that Professor MacRae had rushed to judgment about the contradictory nature of the Gospels without considering how varying Gospel accounts might have been complementary.

In my undergraduate years I began to think critically, not only about the New Testament but also about the methodologies and presuppositions of New Testament scholarship. Sometimes, I discovered, academic consensus was built on the shifting sand of weak philosophy, peculiar methodology, and atheistic theology. Perhaps other approaches were possible, ones that involved rigorous New Testament scholarship and led to a more positive appraisal of the Gospels' reliability.

A Strange Twist in the Road

My road to confidence in the Gospels took a strange twist during my junior year. I enrolled in a seminar with Professor MacRae called "Christians, Jews, and Gnostics." Among the documents we studied in this course were several Gnostic writings that had just been published in English. Some of these documents, written in Coptic, had been translated by Professor MacRae for The Nag Hammadi Library in English5. This meant I had the chance to study these Gnostic texts with one of the world's foremost authorities on them. It never dawned on me, by the way, that someday people outside of academia would care about the contents of the Gnostic Gospels.

In "Christians, Jews, and Gnostics" I learned to dig deeply into the meaning of the ancient texts and to ask all sorts of questions about them. Professor MacRae was willing to engage any serious question, including challenges to his own perspectives. During this second class with him I began to see the Gospels as more reliable than I had once thought, in part, as I compared them to the wildly fictional portraits of Jesus in the Gnostic Gospels.

By the end of this seminar, Professor MacRae encouraged me to pursue graduate work in New Testament. His openness to my questions was one of the reasons I decided to remain at Harvard for my doctoral work. Ironically, the one who was most responsible for my loss of confidence in the Gospels became a primary reason for my growing trust in them.

Critical New Testament Scholarship: Up Close and Personal

Without exception, my grad school teachers echoed Professor MacRae's conclusions about the historical limitations of the New Testament Gospels. In fact, several faculty members made him look rather conservative. I did learn a great deal from these scholars, however. Their knowledge of the world of early Christianity was encyclopedic, and their ability to interpret ancient texts critically was superlative. Yet I began to see how often their interpretations were saturated by unquestioned philosophical presuppositions. If, for example, a passage from the Gospels included a prophecy of Jesus concerning his death, it was assumed without argument that this had been added later by the church because prophecy didn't fit within the naturalistic worldview of my profs.

The more I spent time with some of the leading New Testament scholars in the world, the more I came to respect their brilliance and, at the same time, to recognize the limitations of their scholarly perspectives. I saw how often conclusions based on unsophisticated assumptions were accepted without question by the reigning scholarly community, and taught uncritically as if they were, well, the Gospel truth.

I also discovered how rarely my professors entertained perspectives by scholars who didn't share their naturalistic worldview. Evangelical scholarswere usually ignored simply because they were conservative. This fact was driven home once when I was on winter break in Southern California. I needed to read a few books for one of my courses, so I went to the Fuller Seminary library because it was close to my home. What I found at Fuller stunned me. Fuller students were required to read many of the same books I was assigned, and also books written from an evangelical perspective. Whereas I was getting one party line, Fuller students were challenged to think more broadly and, dare I admit it, more critically. This put an arrogant Harvard student in his place, let me tell you. It also helped me see how much my own education was lopsided. Only once in my entire graduate school experience was I assigned a book by an evangelical scholar. Critical Scholarship and Confidence in the Gospels Beginning with my days at Harvard and continuing throughout the last three decades, I have worked away on the question of the trustworthiness of the Gospels. I have come to believe that there are solid reasons for accepting them as reliable both for history and for faith.

You may be surprised to learn that I agree with about three-quarters of what I learned from Professor MacRae in Religion 140. We affirm the same basic facts: the raw data of ancient documents and archeological discoveries. The differences between our views have to do with how we evaluate the data, and here the gap between what Professor MacRae taught and what I believe today is often wide and deep.

You may also be surprised to discover that my arguments in this book are often friendlier to critical scholarship than you might expect. For example, many defenses of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John depend on an early date of composition (pre–A.D. 70). I will not base my own conclusions upon this early date, though I think there are persuasive arguments in its favor.

While reading this book, an evangelical who is well acquainted with New Testament scholarship might periodically object, "But there are even stronger arguments than the ones you're making." So be it! I'm open to these positions and glad for those who articulate them. But I have chosen to base my case, for the most part, on that which most even-handed critical scholars, including non-evangelicals, would affirm. I've done this for two reasons.

First, I want to encourage the person who is troubled by negative views of the Gospels, perhaps in a college New Testament course or in a popular "Gospels-debunking" book. In a sense, I'm writing for the Mark Roberts who once felt perplexed in Religion 140. To the "old me" and others like him I want to say, "Look, even if you believe most of 'assured results of scholarship' concerning the Gospels, you can still trust them."

Second, I believe this book will have broader impact if I don't fill it with theories that, however plausible, are popular only among conservative scholars. For example, it may well be that the disciples of Jesus had been trained to memorize sayings of their religious mentors, much like later rabbinic students.. This view is ably defended by Birger Gerhardsson in If this is true, it would greatly increase the likelihood that the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels closely reflect what Jesus himself had once said. But since the jury is still out on the question of whether or not the disciples were trained in technical memorization, I won't base my conclusions upon this possibility.

My basic point in this book is that if you look squarely at the facts as they are widely understood, and if you do not color them with pejorative bias or atheistic presuppositions, then you'll find that it's reasonable to trust the Gospels.

For those not familiar with the Bible, I should explain that there are four Gospels in the New Testament, a collection of twenty-seven early Christian writings. The New Testament is the second part of the Christian Bible, which also contains a collection of thirty-nine Jewish writings which Christians call the Old Testament. Jews refer to these thirty-nine writings as the Bible or the Tanakh (from the Hebrew words for law, prophecy, and writings).

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the first four books of the New Testament, though they are not the earliest of the New Testament writings. They focus on certain aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and especially on his death and resurrection. There are other early Christian writings called Gospels, perhaps two or three dozen depending on what counts as a Gospel. For reasons that I'll explain in this book, the extrabiblical Gospels are not as reliable as historical sources for Jesus, though they sometimes describe Jesus' sayings or actions accurately.

The Birth of a "Blook"

This book is a direct result of my engagement with many attempts to undermine confidence in the Gospels. In the last two years I have publicly defended the Gospels against assaults from a Newsweek cover story,. Mark D. Roberts, the Jesus Seminar,. Mark D. Roberts, the book Misquoting Jesus, by Bart Ehrman,. Mark D. Roberts, the claims made about the Gospel of Judas by some scholars,. Mark D. Roberts, and, most of all, Dan Brown's best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code.. Mark D. Roberts, My apologeticwritings have appeared on my web site,, and in other online or print media. As I endeavored to fend off attacks upon the Gospels, it occurred to me that I ought to write a short, popular, positive case for trusting these embattled portraits of Jesus. So in the fall of 2005 I wrote an extended blog series entitled Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? Mark D. Roberts,

Since the release of that series I have received hundreds of gratifying e-mails from people who have thanked me. Some notes have included questions or points of correction. Of course I've also received correspondence from people who disagree with my positions. These have helped me clarify and refine my arguments.

Perhaps the most surprising positive response to my blog series came from the publishers at Crossway Books. They said they were interested in turning my series into a book. At first I hesitated, realizing that there are other fine books on the reliability of the Gospels. I fondly remember the classic volume by F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? which helped me survive my collegiate doubts about the Gospels. I also thought of the more detailed and up-to-date book by Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.. Craig L. Blomberg, And I knew that a solid defense of the Gospels called Reinventing Jesus was soon to be published.. J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Moreover, I have seen how effective Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ has been as a popular apologetic introduction to Jesus and the Gospels. Lee Strobel, But the more I received communication from people who had been helped by my blog series, the more I realized that I could offer something unique to book readers. The result, Can We Trust the Gospels? is an expanded and, I hope, improved version of my original blog series. It is, according to the new lingo, a blook — a book based on a blog.

Many of the basic facts and arguments in this book can be found elsewhere, though numerous points and illustrations are new. What makes this book distinctive is its availability to nonspecialists, including non-Christian readers. I realize this will be frustrating for a few readers who are familiar with New Testament scholarship and who will want more extensive discussion and documentation. But Can We Trust the Gospels? is meant to be a shorter book that can be easily grasped by people who don't have specialized academic knowledge and who don't want to wade through a much longer tome. This volume could easily have been 500 pages with 5,000 footnotes. But then I'd completely miss my intended audience ... the ordinary person who wonders, Can I trust the Gospels?


Excerpted from "Can We Trust the Gospels?"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Mark D. Roberts.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
1. A Bio and a Blook,
2. Can We Know What the Original Gospel Manuscripts Really Said?,
3. Did the Evangelists Know Jesus Personally?,
4. When Were the Gospels Written?,
5. What Sources Did the Gospel Writers Use?,
6. Did Early Christian Oral Tradition Reliably Pass Down the Truth about Jesus?,
7. What Are the New Testament Gospels?,
8. What Difference Does It Make That There Are Four Gospels?,
9. Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?,
10. If the Gospels Are Theology, Can They Be History?,
11. Do Miracles Undermine the Reliability of the Gospels?,
12. Do Historical Sources from the Era of the Gospels Support Their Reliability?,
13. Does Archeology Support the Reliability of the Gospels?,
14. Did the Political Agenda of the Early Church Influence the Content of the Gospels?,
15. Why Do We Have Only Four Gospels in the Bible?,
16. Can We Trust the Gospels After All?,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Can We Trust the Gospels? is quite simply the best effort I have ever read by a serious scholar to communicate what scholars know about the Gospels and why that should indeed encourage us to trust them and thus to trust Jesus Christ."
Hugh Hewitt, nationally syndicated radio talk show host; Professor of Law, Chapman University

"There is a crisis of confidence about the Gospels, fueled by sensational claims about supposedly new Gnostic Gospels with a 'revised standard' view of Jesus. As Mark Roberts makes clear, the earliest and best evidence we have for the real Jesus is the canonical Gospels, not the much later Gnostic ones."
Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament, Asbury Theological Seminary, author of What Have They Done with Jesus?

"This book not only makes a compelling case for trusting the Gospels, it illuminates the creative ways in which God worked to bring us His Word. Roberts's brilliant little book deserves to be widely read by both skeptics and believers."
Joe Carter, Editor, The Gospel Coalition; contributor, NIV Lifehacks Bible

"What F. F. Bruce did for my generation of students, Mark Roberts has done for the current generation. Any student who asks me if our Gospels are reliable will be given this book, and then I'll buy another copy for the next student!"
Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olsson Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, North Park University

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